Yesterday (March 31st, 2017), SunTrust Park opened its gates for the very first time, as the Atlanta Braves hosted the New York Yankees in an exhibition game to mark the start of a new era at the $1.1 billion ballpark.
The Braves departure from Turner Field means that the combined age of all five ballparks in the NL East is a mere 35 years old, with Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia the daddy of the group at the ripe old age of 13.
This bizarre fascination with new stadia is a phenomenon that is not limited solely to Major League Baseball – the oldest stadium in the National Football League is Lambeau Field, which has remained standing since 1957. Most teams have moved into new and updated fields within the past 20 years.
For those of us who have travelled to some of these new arenas, it is not hard to understand why. The facilities are incredible and you do honestly get an experience akin to watching the game from your living room – except it’s all unfolding beneath you.
For lovers of antiquity and tradition however, there’s something deeply unsettling about this morbid desire to ditch stadiums that are barely old enough to legally drink – what happened to atmosphere, to legacy, to romance.
Venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway can hardly be mistaken for a state-of-the-art complex but the mystery and grandeur of these ballparks have become larger than life.
Which is not to say that Braves fans should feel at all guilty as they settle into their heated seats, free wifi and bar-to-person beer delivery (Is that a thing? God I hope that’s a thing).
But it is absurd to think that the 10th youngest ground in the Premier League (Selhurst Park) is older than all but two Major League Baseball parks (Fenway; Wrigley Field) and it’s really not close.
Then again, some of the oldest football stadiums in England were about before baseball had been played recognisably in the United States. So we’ll let them off.
Back to SunTrust Park, back to the Braves and it’s time to check in on some of the brightest stars competing for hardware in the NL East.
Miami Marlins – Giancarlo Stanton
For years I have had this prodigious slugger pegged for a monster season, and a magic 2014 campaign aside, he has largely disappointed.
But if anyone defined upside it’s this guy. Built like a house with the swing to boot, his average exit velocity was third in the Majors and he had five of the ten hardest hit balls all season.
Statcast was invented for physical freaks like Stanton, and if he can stay healthy all year he has the power to lead the league in home runs and trot away with the MVP title.
New York Mets – Yoenis Cespedes
It would be easy to assume that Cespedes is the same player he’s always been – a huge power outfielder whose propensity to chase limits him from being great.
To do so would be to understate the strides he has taken in his one and a half seasons in a Mets uniform. He almost doubled his career walk rate in 2016, shaved a full percentage point off his strikeout rate and maintained – nay, improved – his astonishing power numbers.
In 132 games, his counting numbers were remarkable and he has an undeniable flair for a dramatic hit. Top 20 in the Majors in WRC+ and 11th in exit velocity, he has become a tour de force at the plate.
A full season of health should see his defensive and base-running numbers improve too, Cespedes really doesn’t have to improve much to vault into the MVP conversation.
Philadelphia Phillies – Vince Velasquez
Honestly speaking, I can’t envisage a scenario where Velasquez wins the MVP award (gasp) if for no other reason than the Phillies will be shutting him down after about 160-170 innings.
The command needs work, and the secondary stuff is yet to tick up above average but whisper it quietly there’s more than a little Max Scherzer in the way he’s started in the Majors.
Scherzer 2009 (with the D-Backs): 170 IP, 4.12 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 9.19 K/9, 3.33 BB/9, 10.4% HR/FB rate.
Velasquez 2016: 131 IP, 4.12 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 10.44 K/9, 3.09 BB/9, 14.9% HR/FB rate.
Both men have dominant fastballs, genuine strikeout stuff they’re yet to harness for enough strikes and a susceptibility to give up the long-ball. Yes, Scherzer has a funkier delivery and a lot more success under his belt now but it’s a glimpse at the upside Velasquez could offer.
Washington Nationals – Bryce Harper
That was a hell of a fall from grace for Harper, although in his defence he had a very long way to fall.
Beyond the counting stats was some good news (17.2% BB rate, 18.7% K rate) and some bad news (19.8% ‘soft-hit’ rate, plummeting exit velocity) which makes his 2017 campaign hard to predict.
The upside, however, is the 2015 campaign which just happened to be the greatest offensive season since some bloke named Barry Bonds.
When he’s locked in, there’s no scarier hitter in baseball and for the sake of monster dingers and flamboyant bat-flips here’s hoping Harper’s back. After all, he remains younger than Kris Bryant and Mookie Betts.
Atlanta Braves – Bartolo Colon
The ageless Bartolo Colon continues to defy father time and logic, performing like some kind of baseballing Benjamin Button as he racks up strikeouts and, now, home runs at a relentless pace.
His 1.50 BB/9 was third lowest in the Majors among qualifiers, he chewed through over 190 innings of work for the fourth straight season and he’ll be turning 44 this season. 44!
He doesn’t rack up strikeouts (6.01 K/9), which is understandable given he throws an 87mph fastball 90% of the time, but in front of a youthful and talented Braves defence his groundballs should turn into outs more often than not.
Entering his 21st Major League season, why not an MVP calibre campaign from baseball’s much-loved superstar.